More than a dozen volunteers and workers at New Beginnings have left since February.

More than a dozen volunteers and workers at New Beginnings have left since February. (Chris Urso, Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Military veterans arrive at New Beginnings of Tampa having survived war zones and months, if not years, of homelessness. As the largest shelter for veterans in the Tampa Bay region, the nonprofit has a $3.7 million contract with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide emergency housing.

But confronted long ago with questions about its operations, New Beginnings finds itself mired in uncertainty amid allegations of misconduct by top officials.

Eleven former staff and volunteers told the Tampa Bay Times that founder Tom Atchison, a church pastor, fostered a hostile workplace, hurling racist comments as they tried to serve some of the region’s most vulnerable.

One volunteer who helped veterans find permanent housing said Atchison regularly used slurs when talking about Black people and called her and another African American “the help.” The former outreach director said he shooed Black veterans from the front of the building because the pastor said it created a poor impression.

More than a dozen volunteers and workers at New Beginnings have left since February.

Now, they are coming to terms with something else, too.

Among the founder’s harshest critics is a man known as Ian Donnell, a former executive director fired by Atchison, whom many at the charity considered a possible successor.

After conducting a routine background check on Donnell, the Times discovered that he was not who he seemed.

His real name is Robert Ludwig, according to public records. He served close to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty two decades ago to fraud charges for adopting someone else’s identity to open checking accounts, according to court records. Now Tampa police are investigating accusations by Atchison that Ludwig left New Beginnings with five computers and a check from the charity.

In the reporting of this story, Ludwig spoke repeatedly with the Times until the reporter verified that Ian Donnell wasn’t his real identity. Over the two weeks that followed, Ludwig couldn’t be reached for comment despite attempts to contact him by phone, text and letter.

The fallout from the disarray within the leadership of New Beginnings has been undeniable.

Though the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to provide financial support to the charity, it has “temporarily paused” referrals due to personnel turnover, an agency spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, an affiliate nonprofit has stopped sending volunteers, citing Atchison’s “persistent” use of racial slurs and the departure of experienced staff, according to an email reviewed by the Times.

And New Beginning’s outreach center, opened with fanfare about six months ago, has shuttered.

In an interview, Atchison denied making racist remarks, saying the allegations against him come from “disgruntled employees” who were brainwashed by a fraudster operating under a false identity.

“Half my congregation is Black,” he said. “My assistant pastor is Black. My grandchild is Black.”

Roderick Cunningham, a spokesperson at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, said agency officials looked into the allegations against Atchison but determined there were “no veteran patient concerns.” No formal investigation was conducted.

“I wanted to serve veterans”

Known as “PT”— short for “Pastor Tom” — around the shelter and his nearby church, Atchison founded New Beginnings off Nebraska Avenue in North Tampa in 2002 with his wife.

Nearly a decade ago, he was profiled in a series of Times stories detailing the questionable ways New Beginnings raised and spent money and how, for years, it required its homeless residents to work without pay for food and shelter.

The series showed that Atchison collected Social Security benefits residents received as payment for shelter. While claiming to provide counseling for people who faced addiction and mental health struggles, the shelter didn’t employ anyone trained to provide those services.

In a recent interview, he criticized the series and defended putting people to work without pay, which he had called “work therapy,” but said it is no longer part of how New Beginnings operates. A 2015 federal investigation concluded the program did not break labor laws.

Today, New Beginnings, as part of its ongoing contract with Tampa’s veterans hospital, provides 53 emergency shelter beds at a complex west of the University of South Florida, the largest contract of its kind in the region. Beyond veterans, the charity serves people released from prisons and jails as well as private referrals and people arriving off the street, Atchison said.

Andy Reyes said he had heard years-old complaints about Atchison when he began working for New Beginnings three years ago. But he set aside his concerns.

“I wanted to serve veterans,” he said.

His eyes welled with tears in late September when he looked around New Beginnings’ newly opened outreach center, 2 miles from the nonprofit’s shelter, in Sulphur Springs. He served 14 years with the U.S. Army, deployed both to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, but his transition to civilian life was strained. He was close to homelessness twice.

It had taken staff weeks to get the concrete-block building on Nebraska Avenue ready. They cleared out rooms stuffed with old furniture and the courtyard piled high with trash. They replaced missing ceiling tiles and added a washer and dryer, Wi-Fi and cable.

They named it St. Michael’s Homeless Veterans Center, after the patron saint of the military.

“We were building something special,” Reyes said. “Something that was really needed.”

Claims of racism

But Reyes, along with 10 other staff and volunteers interviewed by the Times, say they grew uneasy with Atchison’s language.

“This guy is just nonstop inappropriate comments,” Reyes said.

Neonkita Frazier, who volunteered at New Beginnings for almost four years before recently stopping, said Atchison repeatedly referred to her and the Black veterans she served using a racial slur.

He referred to Puerto Rican veterans using the N-word and called her and another Black volunteer “the help,” she said. Frazier said she tolerated the language at first because she loved the job.

Lori Zanitsch said she tried to stay focused on the mission, too, in her two years of volunteering, but said she scaled back her hours because of Atchison’s demeaning tone. She had begun hearing veterans remark on his slurs.

“I felt horrible,” she said. “The need is great.”

Fired outreach director Tri Tran, also a veteran, said Atchison once asked him: “Can you get these Black guys away from the front of the house? It looks like a ghetto.”

Then, at a birthday party held by the nonprofit in February, Tran said he heard Atchison ask for the “jigaboo music” to be turned off. Frazier told the Times she heard Atchison describe the food prepared by an African-American by using the N-word.

The comments upset volunteers at the party from a nonprofit called Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay, records show.

On Feb. 17, a representative from the organization wrote to Ludwig — who was then the executive director of New Beginnings going by Ian Donnell — to complain about the “disrespect” her volunteers had encountered and to suspend their volunteer partnership, records show. Atchison’s use of racial slurs was a “persistent problem,” the representative wrote.

After the party, Ludwig said he called a representative from Veteran Affairs to report Atchison’s comments and inform them that several New Beginnings staff members were poised to quit.

Two days after the birthday party, Ludwig said, Atchison fired him and said “none of his people should return” — meaning at least half a dozen others who worked at St. Michael’s, all veterans themselves.

Atchison denied firing anyone but Tran and Ludwig. Atchison said neither was paid staff of New Beginnings. He said he fired Tran because he wouldn’t work with anyone but Ludwig.

Everyone else, he said, “picked up their stuff and left of their own accord.”

The next day, Tran found a notice from Atchison on the door of the Sulphur Springs home he shares with three other veterans. It said he had to leave for “failure to obey house rules,” according to records reviewed by the Times.

In March, Atchison filed Tran’s eviction notice, court records show. Atchison said Tran was late on rent and was trying to turn other tenants against him.

Dual identities

The man who identified himself as Ian Donnell to New Beginnings workers and the Times said he began there in 2020, drawn to help veterans sign up for benefits, access care and navigate Tampa’s increasingly unaffordable housing market.

On his LinkedIn page, and on his red and white business cards, his name was listed as R. Ian Donnell.

Business records, court files and social media posts confirm him to be 56-year-old Robert Ludwig of Illinois.

He was sentenced and taken into custody in February 2004 for three counts of fraud, and was incarcerated until November 2005. Authorities say he harvested personal information from others to create bogus checking accounts that he used to make purchases, including for computer equipment.

“I fired him before I knew all that,” Atchison said. He says he did not pay Ludwig because he had told the founder that he didn’t need money.

Atchison said it was clear that Ludwig was trying to push him out, which is why he terminated his unpaid position.

“He said, ‘Either you turn New Beginnings over to me and my staff or I will destroy you,’” Atchison said.

Before he stopped returning phone calls from the Times, Ludwig denied threatening Atchison. He said he had worked hard to rebuild New Beginnings’ reputation.

Of Atchison, he said: “No vulnerable person should be placed in this man’s care. Especially veterans.”

He said he offered to buy the charity in February for $1.2 million. The deal, he said, would have required the pastor to step down as CEO.

Atchison filed two complaints with the Tampa Police Department: that his ousted executive director stole a check, and that he left with five computers belonging to the charity.

Ludwig told the Times he took five computers that he paid for himself.

He had previously told the Times he uses his middle name professionally to protect his privacy, given the nature of the job, often assisting people fresh out of prison or in crisis.

On March 22, the Times asked him to provide identification for verification. Over the phone, he that said he was about to undergo surgery and that he would take a picture of it and text it later.

He has not replied since.

A federal spokesperson confirmed Ludwig served in the Marines, as he had claimed, but could not provide his service dates or describe the terms of his discharge. The Times has requested the information from the National Archives.

A LinkedIn profile for R. Ian Donnell has since been deleted. It listed him as executive director of New Beginnings, with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Florida, class of 1992. The school could not find a student with that name or Robert Ludwig. Neither could the University of Michigan, where he claimed to have earned a master’s degree in business administration in 1999.

On his Facebook profile, under the name Robert Ludwig, he lists himself as an editor and publisher at Catholic Family Media. The profile photo is that of the same man who worked at New Beginnings under the name Ian Donnell. Robert C. Ludwig is listed as its registered agent with a St. Louis address, according to Missouri business records.

“He’s the best con man I’ve ever met,” Atchison said. “And I’ve met a lot.”

‘One hero at a time’

Atchison said he plans to continue serving the area’s neediest residents and hopes to reopen the outreach center, catering to anyone experiencing homelessness, not specifically veterans.

Among those who once gathered there is formerly homeless Marine Corps veteran Lance Faison. He visited St. Michaels weekly, enrolling in financial literacy and cooking classes.

News of the center’s closure amid the nonprofit’s turmoil was upsetting, he said, and has left a gaping hole.

“It offered the camaraderie I missed from the military,” Faison said. “It helped me feel complete.”

On one side of the building, a sign remains: “Ending veteran homelessness one hero at a time.”

©2024 Tampa Bay Times.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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